A “glittering saga” about the other black Renaissance.
Veteran newsman and reporter Whitaker (Cosby: His Life and Times, 2014, etc.) explored his own family’s black history in My Long Trip Home (2011), which included stories about his Pittsburgh grandparents’ funeral business. Here, he returns to the city to reveal its incredibly rich black heritage from the late 19th century to the 1950s. As the author writes, Pittsburgh had a “glorious stretch” as “one of the most vibrant and consequential communities of color in U.S. history.” Drawing on a five-page cast of characters, he tells this lively story with a linked series of family histories. In the Gilded Age, Pittsburgh had no shortage of wealthy entrepreneurs: Carnegie, Westinghouse, Heinz, Mellon, and Frick. But there was also Cumberland “Cap” Posey, a black steamboat engineer and coal tycoon who had the foresight to invest in the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper that is at the heart of this story. In 1910, Posey hired a black attorney, Robert Lee Vann, the “calculating crusader,” who would be its farsighted editor. Every step of the way, as Whitaker vividly chronicles Pittsburgh’s key black figures in music, sports, and politics, the Courier is front and center. Its sports reporters championed the rise of the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis; as his popularity grew, the paper’s circulation skyrocketed, and it became America’s most influential black newspaper. Pittsburgh now had the best Negro League baseball teams, thanks to racketeer-turned-promotor Gus “Big Red” Greenlee, and the Hill District, home of the future “bard of a broken world,” playwright August Wilson. Sports reporter Wendell Smith played a major role in integrating baseball with his coverage of Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, and the Courier also chronicled the rise of two of music’s greatest pianists, the self-taught prodigy Erroll Garner and the jazz composer Billy Strayhorn.
An expansive, prodigiously researched, and masterfully told history.